“Credited For Saving 200 US Soldiers” – How Tech-Armed Spy Animals Are Reshaping Global Intelligence Ops

A recent article by National Geographic on whether a cat or pigeon is a better spy is going around on social media all over the world. It has revived the topic of how birds and animals have long been unsuspecting participants in the clandestine world of espionage all over the world.

Incidentally, an incident that occurred in India has triggered the debate over the subject. Though highly underplayed in the Indian media, the story is like this.

Last May, the Mumbai Police caught a pigeon after they found a message on the bird’s wings in illegible letters, suspected to be the  Chinese language. The bird had two rings of copper and aluminum attached to its legs, with the message written in Chinese-style lettering.

Suspecting the pigeon to be a ‘spy,’ it was sent to an animal hospital for a medical checkup and then was ‘jailed’ in a separate cage there for “deep and proper inquiry and investigations.”

However, the Police did not find “any suspicious material or fact” associated with the pigeon; they guessed that the bird was probably a racing pigeon from Taiwan, and in one such race, it strayed from the path to reach Mumbai, where it was caught.

The case was shut, but the ‘reluctant spy’ was forgotten and remained in the caged confines until some animal activists belonging to a nonprofit organization called PETA protested about the confinement. Finally, on February 1, after eight months of “imprisonment,” the bird was freed to soar again in the skies.

It may be noted that given the sensitiveness inherent in India’s relations with Pakistan and China, Indian authorities have always taken extra precautions with birds flying into the country from outside.

Last March, there was also a panic in the eastern state of Odisha over two “spy pigeons” that were caught. Odisha Police found cameras attached to the birds and sent them for forensic examination.

Reportedly, it was said that the pigeons were used by enthusiasts, “probably Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, or Vietnam,” who fitted cameras to track the path they took to fly back. They were fitted with GPS chips, like done with many migratory birds at Chilika Lake, to trace the routes they take

However, one pigeon who flew from Pakistan skies into India in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district in 2020 proved to be a “spy” if the Indian version is true.

Apparently, in custody, the pigeon “sang” some names, on the basis of which two Pakistani officials from the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi were expelled over charges of espionage. The pigeon was not returned and, on the contrary, was made to work for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency.

However, if the history of pigeon espionage is taken into account, India cannot be the only country that seems to be obsessed with it.

Elizabeth Macalaster, author of “War Pigeons: Winged Couriers in the US Military, 1878-1957”, says how the United States military had been using pigeons since the late 1800s for communication. And there is plenty of material, now declassified, that says that the US Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) used pigeons in espionage missions.

For several years, the Office of Research and Development [ORD] has carried out endeavors to train different species of birds,” states a declassified September 1976 CIA working paper.

By September 1976, the ORD was said to have invested $100,000 not just for training pigeons but also for designing harnesses and cameras for the operation. Testing and training were conducted throughout the United States.

The images the birds captured were considered to be of astounding quality. However,  since these tests were done in areas of military installations inside the United States, questions of illegal wiretapping and domestic surveillance arose, and the CIA leadership did not agree to further experiments.

But the extent of the program remains unknown, with the most recent public comments by the CIA in a 2021 video admitting that “parts of the mission are actually still classified.”

The intended mission of this program was for pigeons to be used against “priority” intelligence targets within the Soviet Union. The declassified files indicate that the birds would be secretly shipped to Moscow. The CIA looked at lots of ways they could be released, possibly from under a thick overcoat or from a hole in the floor of a car when parked.

The targeted area was believed to be the Shipyards at Leningrad, which built the most advanced Soviet submarines. However, one does not know whether the pigeons were actually flown or not and what intelligence they collected if flown. Because, that is where the story in the declassified files ends. Thus,  the matter continues to remain a secret.

Another example of pigeon espionage by the United States is that of World War II, during which a bird named Cher Ami apparently saved the lives of nearly 200 American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines.

The soldiers were part of the 77th Infantry Division’s “Lost Battalion,” which had become surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest. Despite being shot through the breast, Cher Ami managed to deliver a message that led to their rescue.

Of course, the use of pigeons in intelligence operations has been an ongoing practice for ages, but it was during the World Wars that Pigeons were considered excellent spies.

During the war, miniature cameras were positioned on the pigeons who could then deliver messages while also taking images and collecting intelligence while being virtually undetected. In fact, they were so good that they had a success rate in delivering messages under critical circumstances.

Reportedly, 95% of the time, pigeons have earned more medals of honor than any other animal in military and intelligence history.

And when one talks of animals as spies, there are examples of cats, dogs, elephants, dolphins, etc. Four years ago, a Russian “spy whale,” Hvaldimir, made news after it was spotted near Norway wearing a custom-built harness that said “equipment of St Petersburg.”

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It is alleged that whales and dolphins are being utilized by Vladimir Putin’s Russia as weapons in his fight against the West, based on a shadowy history of such practice in the past. The declassified CIA files suggest that during the Cold War, the Soviets trained bottlenose dolphins to place “packages” like tracking devices and explosives onto ships.

Even the Americans were not reticent in using dolphins for spying. In the 1960s, the CIA looked at using dolphins for “harbor penetration,” either manned or unmanned. Apparently, a CIA team tried to use bottlenose dolphins for underwater attacks against enemy shipping.

There were also tests on whether dolphins could carry sensors to collect the sounds of Soviet nuclear submarines or look for radioactive or biological weapons traces from nearby facilities.

Reportedly, by 1967, the CIA was spending more than $600,000£480,000 on three programs – Oxygas for dolphins, Axiolite involving birds, and Kechel with dogs and cats.

The story of the cats was the most famous. Under “Project Acoustic Kitty,” the CIA embarked on an ambitious project to turn a common housecat into a covert listening device.

The plan involved surgically implanting a microphone in the cat’s ear canal, a radio transmitter at the base of its skull, and a thin wire antenna running along its spine. The idea was to deploy the feline spy near embassies or other sensitive locations to eavesdrop on conversations.

However, the project ended in utter failure and was abandoned after the field test in Washington involving a cat. The cat was released near a park bench where two men were sitting, but instead of focusing on their conversation, it was distracted by a pigeon and ran into oncoming traffic, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi! The project was abandoned soon after, with one internal report declaring it “a total failure.”

These days, there are reports of “Snake robots” being developed and trained by the Israeli military to navigate rough and confined spaces for intelligence operations. These robots are designed to quietly infiltrate enemy territory, capable of recording video and sound.

Similarly, the Americans are reported to have developed robotic fish as a discreet method of underwater surveillance. These devices are believed to mimic the movement and appearance of real fish, allowing them to blend into marine environments while monitoring water quality or conducting covert operations. This robotic fish is named “GhostSwimmer” by the US Office of Naval Research.

The above examples make it clear that there is now an intersection of technology and animals and birds of the natural world and that this intersection is being harnessed for intelligence purposes.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com